PostRefRacism: How Big a Problem is it Really?

3 Aug

PostRefRacism, a Twitter account set up to document post-referendum racist incidents, has just released a report on post-referendum racism in Britain. Compiled with input from similar groups, Worrying Signs and iStreetWatch, and endorsed by the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), the report garnered widespread media attention in the past week, as did police data revealing a 20% spike in reported ‘hate crime’ after the referendum, with a total 6,000 incidents.

PostRefRacism’s report is potentially useful in breaking down this alarming headline figure, given its exclusive focus on racism. It identifies 636 individual reports of ‘racist and xenophobic hate crime’ – less than 11% of the total ‘hate crime’ figure released by police – of which 88% involved verbal abuse or ‘propaganda’. Of course, Twitter usage is hardly universal. But PostRefRacism worked very hard to reach this figure. With its 10,000 followers, it received nearly 99,000 tweets from 25 June to 4 July. However, 80% of these were generic expressions of concern, with only 20% reporting actual incidents, boiling down to only 636 separate cases – 25% of which were hearsay, and none of which have been verified.

The report’s most troubling claim is that 51% of these incidents ‘referred specifically to the referendum’, while 14% affected children, 12% were Islamophobic, and 4% were ‘other’. However, 51% of the 636 incidents fit into none of these categories. That is, at most 159 cases (51% of 51%) ‘referred specifically to the referendum’. Assuming they were all perpetrated by individual ‘leave’ voters, that leaves 17,410,583 Leavers who did not abuse anyone, despite a third saying they were primarily motivated to restore immigration controls – not to mention the other 29,095,259 eligible voters. Put differently, there are about 853,000 Poles living in Britain, but PostRefRacism recorded only 54 incidents where Poles were the reported victims (0.00006%).

Clearly, there is the possibility of under-reporting, and even one incident is one too many. Verbal abuse can be desperately upsetting for victims, and we should stand in full solidarity with them. But in a country as populous and diverse as Britain, do these figures really demonstrate widespread racist intolerance?

We must also ask what the phrase ‘referred specifically to the referendum’ actually means. Sometimes there is a clear (albeit obtuse) link: someone saying ‘shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out’. But more often, reports seem to involve generic phrases like ‘go home’ (74 stories), ‘leave’ (80 stories) and ‘fuck off’ (45 stories). Reprehensible as such comments are, it’s unclear why we should attribute them ‘specifically to the referendum’. Racist bigots have been telling non-white people to ‘go home’ for decades – it is a standard, despicable trope. The IRR’s own digest, which provides substantive detail of each case, involves many such outbursts – most of which cannot plausibly be linked to the referendum. The ethnic breakdown of reported victims – only 21% of whom are identified as Europeans – also suggests continuity with long-established patterns of racism against non-whites. The geographic pattern of incidents also fails to correlate with the ‘leave’ vote, with 44% originating in London.

The data thus boil down to a statistical uptick in an underlying current of low-level racist activity. As James Aber has argued here on TCM, a tiny, hard-core minority of racist individuals, who existed prior to the referendum, apparently felt emboldened to be more abusive following the result. Alarmist reports that made it appear that their attitudes were widely shared may even have emboldened them further. But such upticks are not new; far larger surges invariably follow terrorist atrocities. Anti-Muslim crimes in the US jumped 1,600% after 9/11; hate crimes in London increased 600% after 7/7; and anti-Muslim incidents in France jumped 281% after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The smaller uptick in Britain does not necessarily indicate any longer-term realignment. Polls on voting intentions do not suggest any shift towards right-wing parties. There is no surge for UKIP, still less for the British National Party – who, let us not forget, garnered just 1,667 votes in the 2015 general election. Conversely, there is overwhelming public support – 84% – for the residency rights of EU nationals already living in Britain. No doubt, racism must continue to be challenged – but, as Philip Cunliffe argues on TCM, we do not need the EU to do this.

This analysis is necessary not to dismiss the experience of racism but to understand it and shape appropriate responses. As Stathis Kouvelakis warns British leftists, embracing this discourse of widespread working-class racism is seriously detrimental to any progressive agenda, particularly if one believes it is historically embedded into the English character, as some now argue. It destroys the notion that the vast majority of the population are capable of acting as agents of progressive social, political and economic change. It fuels instead either liberal insistence on containing and suppressing mass sentiment, Labour-rightists’ pandering to anti-immigration attitudes, or right-wing populist efforts to exacerbate and exploit ethnic divisions.

Rather than aiding the enemy, leftists ought to be challenging these slanders against the white working classes and asking why, as Kouvelakis puts it, class struggle is being distorted into anti-immigration sentiment that, in its nastiest form, shades into racism. As we have argued, simply decrying racism merely evades this fundamental question. The answer is obvious enough. Following the crushing defeat of organised labour in the 1980s, the political class has practised 30 years of neoliberalism, resulting in flat-lining wages and living standards, followed by eight years of austerity in which real wages have fallen at the same rate as those in crisis-struck Greece. Social security, housing and decent work are all dwindling. Politicians of all stripes absolutely insist ‘there is no alternative’ to this shrinking pie – yet then admit millions of new mouths to share it. In this context, it can surprise no-one that a defence of living standards takes the form of resistance to immigration. Indeed, the hegemony of TINA makes anti-immigration sentiment a structural feature of political life. It is this hegemony that the left must challenge.

Lee Jones

After Brexit: ending out-sourced anti-racism

2 Aug

According to much of what one reads and sees today, Britain is a smaller, meaner and nastier place after the vote to leave the European Union (EU) one month ago. According to reports across the media, there has been an explosion of nativist outbursts and xenophobic violence around the country, ranging from public aggression and hostility towards people of colour to an attempted firebombing of a halal butchers and a Polish family in Plymouth. However much trends and reports shared on social media should be treated with caution, and however far we are from the virulent racism of the 1970s when organised National Front gangs could terrorise ethnic minorities with impunity, there clearly seems to have been a public swell of xenophobia since the Brexit vote. Friends of mine whom I (obviously) have no reason to doubt or disbelieve have experienced open racist aggression towards them since the referendum – sometimes for the first time in their lives. However if it truly was the EU that provided a bulwark against such racism, then this should give every Remain voter, would-be progressive and anti-racist pause for serious thought.

On the face of it, it would seem self-evident that a vote to delink your country from a continental organisation based on cross-border institutions and cosmopolitan values would lead to strengthened national and xenophobic sentiment. Yet to accept this proposition would be immediately to admit defeat on issues of xenophobia and racism. Indeed, it would be to admit defeat long before the Brexit vote even happened. If anti-racism really was dependent on Britain’s political link to Brussels, this would only be to say that values championed by the left have no enduring social and political basis at the national level. If anti-racism was truly dependent on an organisation as thinly-stretched, weakly-institutionalised and undemocratic as the EU, then it would be simpler to say that political anti-racism had no real foundations whatsoever, except in EU rhetoric about ‘values’. Anyone who thinks that Brexit has caused racism should be asking themselves why they had been so complacent for so long before the Brexit vote that they had ended up investing all their hopes for racial inclusion and diversity in an institution as bankrupt as the EU. Why did the left out-source anti-racism to such a profoundly problematic institution? That should be the real question for the left after Brexit, more than theory-mongering about Britain’s imperial identities  – an organisation whose very own representatives ironically enough openly described the EU as a new type of imperial project.

If we consider things a little more closely, then the notion that the EU provided any kind of rampart against racism begins to fall away. The EU has drowned tens of thousands of Africans in the Mediterranean – a record of racial mass murder that outdoes any of the far-right populist parties that have never wielded national power, whether that be in Austria, Britain, France or Germany. By building Fortress Europe with its miles of barbed wire, military patrols and odious deals with neighbouring states, it is the EU that has contributed to the siege-mentality gripping European countries, solidifying popular fears that they are being overwhelmed by migrants. The much-vaunted freedom of movement within the EU was always its greatest lie. Not only did this ‘freedom’ come at the cost of the EU’s bloody outer borders, but even within the EU itself, such freedom was always qualified, limited and stratified, especially for Easterners. Western states opted to limit migration after the accession of new Eastern states to the Union for years at a time, while Roma citizens were punished for exercising their right to freedom of movement.

Not only does all this further expose the catastrophe of vesting anti-racism in the EU, it also suggests that the vote to the leave the EU offers no meaningful explanation of post-Brexit xenophobia. As many have already pointed out, the idea that even a significant minority of all the 17.4 million Brexit voters are racists simply does not stand to reason. Unsurprisingly, a Remain campaign that insisted that a Leave vote was xenophobic ended up emboldening xenophobes after Brexit. Whatever the post-Brexit wave of xenophobia may represent, what it does not embody is the resurgence of any imperial racial or ultranationalism. To attribute the new xenophobia to resurgent imperial and racial nationalism is as delusional as the free market and libertarian Leave campaigners who stammered about the ‘Anglosphere’ – the politically correct code for the old empire – that Britain could join once it left the EU. Both positions are mirror images of the other, fixated on a receding imperial past and missing what is happening in front of them. The constitutional framework of the old imperial state that packaged its imperial nationalism – the United Kingdom – is itself unravelling and fragmenting, regardless of whether or not Scotland goes independent.

To the extent that Little Englander xenophobia has emerged from the Brexit vote, it is no resurgence of an atavistic past, but fully in keeping with today’s identity politics. The cosmopolitan and multicultural values championed by the EU have functioned as intended, to fragment mass politics by proliferating minority identities competing for the grace and favour of the state. Identity politics also helped to suppress and undercut old trade union demands for greater power, higher wages and redistribution as selfish, blinkered majoritarianism riding roughshod over minorities and oblivious to the outside world. Everyone was entitled to a special state-sanctioned identity, except the white working class. In truth, Little Englander nationalism is the logical end-point of cosmopolitan multiculturalism – it is identity politics for the ‘left behind’. If Brexit dealt a blow to EU cosmopolitanism and a boost to majoritarian democracy by giving people political control over their lives, it also has the potential to strike a blow against identity politics, too – including Little Englander nationalism.

Philip Cunliffe

Where Does the Truth Lie?

1 Aug

Does the UK need an Office of Electoral Integrity? Guest contributor James Heartfield thinks not.

*  *  *

An early day motion in the House of Commons calls for a new public body to make people tell the truth. It has some appeal for many voters who think that politicians are liars. The argument has more legs since the referendum campaign. The Change.org campaigners who got a hundred thousand people to sign a petition calling for the new ‘Office of Electoral Integrity’ were moved by what they saw as the lies told by the two sides in the referendum campaign.

Lies are not an assault on democracy, they are a part of it. If we were not fallible people, but angels, who could see through all illusions, and were incapable of lying, there would be no differences of opinion, or factions, and no need for democracy: everything would be immediately apparent. But because we are not angels, the best means we know of reaching, if not ‘the truth’ at least a truer picture, is by arguing amongst ourselves, so that the wilder lies are exposed as such. That happened in the referendum debate. The leave side’s claim that they would spend £350million on the NHS was widely and universally ridiculed; the Remain side’s claim that the economy would disintegrate, too, was exposed as a shameless exaggeration. This was not a travesty of democracy, but, for the first time in a long time, a democratic debate that truly examined the issues before us, soberly, and with great intent.

Among the middle class activists of Change.org and the Labour MPs who signed the Early Day Motion, like Margaret Hodge and David Lammy, the idea of enforcing truth in politics appeals because they cannot believe that, or understand why they have lost an argument. So sure are they in themselves that their ideas were pure and true, they can only really believe that dissent from them must come about by ignorance or deception. But that is only because they are not really asking themselves what it is about their own ideas that is less than convincing. The invincible redoubt they want to erect around the one true view only shows how weak that view really is. Rather than take the difficult step of asking what they have got wrong, they want to call for an ombudsman to rule ‘lies’ out of order.

In the 2000s, legislators called for evidence-based policy, deploring the way that policy-making had been captured by interest groups and lobbies. As the greater ideological differences between the Labour and Tory front benches were closing, it seemed that there would be a new era of policy that arose out of simple uncontested facts, rather than dogmatic beliefs. That was a dream, though. The hope that policy would be uncontentious could only come about by silencing opposition. The practical history of evidence-based policy, as all the wags knew, was one of policy-based evidence: namely that social scientists and pollsters manufactured evidence on demand, just as legislators cherry-picked that that suited their preconceived beliefs.

The apotheosis of evidence-based policy was John Scarlett’s report to the Joint Intelligence Chiefs that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein incontrovertibly held weapons of mass destruction. This cooked-up report was used to brow-beat MPs into supporting the decision to wage war in Iraq – an evidence-based policy. Other instances of the same included the Anti-Social Behaviour Order, a legal constraint on behaviour that was proved by psychologists and social scientists to be the best way of dealing with the problem – until it proved to be a disaster. Before that ecological economists persuaded the Conservative government to introduce a fuel tax escalator in 1993 to dissuade people from driving cars that had to be abandoned in the face of widespread hostility.

All of these policies were based on the New Public Management theory that contentious issues had to be taken out of the hands of elected politicians, answerable to a volatile public, and put instead into the hands of experts, guided only by the truth. But characteristically the experts got things wrong, mistaking their own prejudices for the unadorned truth, and also they were unable to win the public support that policies need to be successful.

The view that there are lies here and the truth there is fine for children. But in reality there are of course grey areas, one-sidedness and misunderstandings. Even more frustrating for those defenders of the one truth, things change, so that what was obviously unfounded one day, becomes the norm the next. ‘When the facts change, I change my mind,’ Keynes said, adding ‘what do you do?’ And even more frustratingly, beliefs themselves can pass from being subjective fancies to objective realities. This last prospect causes lasting dread among the middle class commentators who call it ‘post-factual politics’.

In a letter to Arnold Ruge, Karl Marx chided his old friend for making the truth into something like a god, which the people must obey:

we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.

Argument and debate are the route to a better understanding. The fantasy of appointed guardians of the truth, striking down error, is the road to doctrinaire, authoritarian and indeed inefficient government.

 

Representative Democracy, Populism and Technocracy

31 Jul

On TCM and elsewhere, we often use the terms “technocracy”, “populism”, and “(representative) democracy”, without necessarily explaining what these terms mean. It’s worth clarifying them now because it helps clarify the problematic nature of calls to invoke Article 50 immediately. In short, it is a populist demand that threatens to dissolve a democratic moment into a technocratic process.

Democracy denotes the rule of the demos – the people. In representative democracy, the people are sovereign and self-determining. However, it’s not assumed that the popular will can somehow directly translate itself into concrete political outcomes. Nor is society unified in its beliefs. A process of representation is required to concretise the popular will, and to mediate between individuals and groups and the actual process of governing. Political parties form to appeal to different social groups. The parties develop policy platforms, based on different worldviews, that seek to combine the interests of different constituents but also to influence their views. Democracy consists in the process of two-way dialogue between the people and their representatives, which gives specific content to the abstract notion of popular sovereignty.

By contrast, technocracy denotes the rule of technical experts – technocrats. It arises when issues that were once matters of political and ideological contestation get turned into technical questions, either because contestation becomes muted, or because issues are defined as so technically complicated that ordinary people cannot understand them. Technocracy is undemocratic because it removes decision-making from political institutions subject to popular influence. For technocrats, policy objectives are taken-for-granted. ideology and politics are dirty words and the only relevant question appears to be how to achieve  pre-given objectives with maximum efficiency – a question best left to technical experts who understand the intricacies of these things.

Obviously, European integration has been a highly technocratic process. It has converted matters previously the subject of political debate in national parliaments, between parties representing competing worldviews and social forces, into a set of technical matters to be resolved in private discussions among likeminded experts. Contemporary political parties across Europe are also increasingly technocratic entities. As ideological contestation between the parties has declined,  they have increasingly approached social, political and economic problems as technical issues requiring technical solutions. Becoming detached from the social forces they once represented, their policy platforms converge around promoting market efficiency.

Populism is a reaction against technocracy, or any form of elite rule that seems unresponsive to the popular will. Unlike representative democracy, populism does not recognise the multiplicity of societal interests requiring representation through parties. Populists appeal directly to “the people” en masse, mobilising them against “the elite”, and claim that the popular will can be channelled directly into political outcomes, most often through an individual “tribune” (Trump, Perón, Chavez, and so on). They do this, and mask real divisions among “the people”, by using what Ernesto Laclau calls “empty signifiers” – slogans that are so intrinsically meaningless that many people can load their very different grievances into them. For instance, “Make America Great Again!” is not a concrete policy platform, but a way of attracting support from people who are simply disaffected, for myriad and possibly contradictory reasons. Populism thus circumvents the process of dialogue and interest representation that gives substantive content to the popular will. It also weakens democratic accountability, because this very hollowness permits populist leaders enormous latitude to act arbitrarily, in the name of “the people”; anyone who opposes them is necessarily an “enemy of the people”. This is one reason why populist government is so often characterised by erratic, irrational policies that threaten individual liberty.

In the present context, “Invoke Article 50 Now!” is a populist demand. The slogan appeals to “the people” against “the elite” and the technocrats, who are assumed (not entirely baselessly) to wish to thwart the popular will. It also assumes that this will can somehow translate directly into a desired outcome. While it urges a concrete political step, it offers no other end except “leaving the EU”. That demand, like the Leave campaign’s “Take Back Control”, is itself devoid of substantive content. One can leave the EU in myriad ways, from “Lexit” to “Little Britain”, from maximum autonomy to “Brexit in name only”. The question of which will prevail does not seem to matter, nor does the process or strategy by which this is to be attained. At a recent public meeting, “Invoke Article 50 Now!” campaigners described such questions as “worrying about the paperwork”, “tiny details” and “minutiae”. Article 50 campaigners seem completely disinterested in the representative processes that are required to concretise the popular will for Brexit into a specific post-Brexit future.

The irony is that capitulating to their demand would swiftly convert a democratic process into a technocratic one, and sideline the people entirely. As we have explained, post-Article 50 negotiations will involve expert negotiators hammering out the technical details of Brexit on the basis of broad objectives defined by their political masters. If Article 50 is invoked tomorrow, given the lack of substantive demands for an alternative programme, the deal sought by Theresa May’s government will most likely be “Brexit in name only” – preserving much EU regulation, budget contributions and perhaps even, in the long term, freedom of movement, in exchange for access to the single market. Article 50 campaigners will likely call this a “fudge”. But it won’t be – Britain will have left the EU, and right now that is all these campaigners are actually demanding. In the absence of more substantive demands, it will be impossible to show that the government has actually betrayed the people.

The EU referendum result exposes the long-running crisis of representative democracy. Where it has been hollowed out in favour of technocracy, the gap between rulers and ruled leave people prey to populism. The solution to this crisis is not to embrace populism, but to rebuild representative democracy. Given four decades of rot, this is bound to be a slow, painful task. But the only way to restore accountable government and true popular sovereignty is to insist that political leaders represent our interests when governing the state. We can start by formulating concrete demands about the kind of society, economy and politics we want to attain through Brexit. But that is far harder than clinging to abstract notions of “democracy” containing no concrete political substance.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

Changing the world doesn’t mean the end of the world

31 Jul

On Thursday 23 June a majority of the British people voted in a referendum to Leave the European Union.For a large minority of people Friday 24 was a ‘dark day’. That is understandable to an extent – they lost a very big vote.But there was something very exaggerated about the fear. That is not surprising: the referendum campaign was dominated by fear. People had said that if we left the EU, the economy would collapse, xenophobia – if not Fascism – would take over Britain, and international peace would be at risk. But none of that has happened.

Economic Apocalypse When?

One month on, the British economy has yet to collapse. There’s a long way to go, especially in working out how Britain will trade with the world from outside the EU.  And the economy has certainly wobbled in the past month, and a slip back into recession is predicted. But the economy has not melted down, nor will it. The markets bet on a Remain vote, and had to re-adjust. The pound fell in value, but it quickly settled about 9% down. That is a problem for British holidaymakers and some small companies, but it is good news for exporters. The FTSE 100 index is up 5%, while the domestically-focused FTSE 250 is down only 2%. Despite the UK losing its AAA debt rating, borrowing costs remain at an all-time low. British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline told the voters not to vote Leave, but now has just announced £275 million in investment in the UK anyway.

The referendum should make us braver when it comes to politics. For decades, we have been told that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to policies that appease global market forces. Repeated recessions, from Thatcher through New Labour to Cameron, show that deliberately appeasing the markets does not lead to stability. Conversely, voting for a big change has not caused the economic sky to fall. People should now be emboldened to vote for how they want the economy to meet their needs, not to meet the mysterious and unknowable needs of the great god ‘Economy’ – as interpreted by its economist-priests.

Is Britain racist?

The imminent danger of Britain being taken over by right-wing racists was so terrifying for many leftists that they abandoned their criticism of the anti-democratic, elite, ‘neoliberal’ European Union and backed Remain instead. Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee even warned that a Leave vote would be ‘National socialism … in the making.’

But after Brexit, the Far Right has not taken over. If Nigel Farage is a new Home Counties Hitler, he is going a funny way about it – trying to admit defeat before the referendum results were in, and then resigning as party leader a week later. Boris Johnson, always a slightly unconvincing potential Fascist leader, clearly had no idea what to do once he won the referendum and dropped out of the Conservative leadership race shortly afterwards. The British National Party and Britain First are conspicuously absent. Our new Prime Minister is a Tory arch-Blairite who was on the Remain side.

There was a 20% spike in reported hate crimes after the referendum.  For some Remainers and middle-class intellectuals, this confirms their worst fears that Britain’s many racists have been unleashed by Brexit. One British journalist told an American newspaper that the white population of the UK is rotten all the way through with 1,000-year-old imperialist racism: ‘The suburbs dream of violence’. Another British intellectual wrote that ‘millions of our fellow citizens … have spent the last few decades privately muttering to themselves that Enoch had a point … There is a real darkness in this country, a xenophobic, racist sickness of heart’.

Racist abuse is terrible, inexcusable, and must be confronted and defeated. But these tasks require sober analysis to really understand the true extent of the problem – not hysterical exaggeration. If these writers were correct, we would not leave our front doors, never mind the EU.

Even if all 6,000 reported incidents of ‘hate crime’ were racist outages committed by individual Leave voters, that still leaves  17,404,742 Leave voters who have not conducted a hate crime, not to mention the other 29,095,259 eligible voters. Put differently, only 0.0001% of eligible voters have perpetrated a hate crime. Presenting the data this way may seem absurd, but there is a reason why the World Values Survey routinely finds Britain to be one of the most racially tolerate societies worldwide. Indeed, a striking aspect of the popular response to these incidents is that communities have quickly rallied around victims. A 20% spike in incidents is regrettable, but is relatively small compared to the surges in racist attacks that invariably follow terrorist atrocities. Anti-Muslim crimes in the US jumped 1,600% after 9/11; hate crimes in London increased 600% after 7/7; and anti-Muslim incidents in France jumped 281% after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Like these attacks, the referendum has not created new racists out of thin air, but rather encouraged a small, hard-core minority to come out of the woodwork. Hysterical media reportage may even have exacerbated this by leading this minority to believe its racist actions are widely supported. Similarly, a Remain result would not have made these people vanish; indeed, it might equally have prompted them to vent their anger by attacking immigrants. It would have been ridiculous if Remain voters were blamed for that. Like Leave voters, they voted on whether to leave or stay in the EU, not on whether they supported racist abuse. If the only way to avoid racist violence is not holding a referendum at all, then we allow our democracy to be held hostage by a tiny minority of racists.

Britain is far from perfect. There is undoubtedly a small minority of racist bigots, and a much broader and more deeply entrenched problem of structural/ systemic racism. But despite Remainer commentary, we are not back in the 1970s, where fascists had to be fought on the streets of London and BME citizens or residents had to fear for their lives. Nor, despite a small, despicable number of people shouting “go home!” is there serious pressure to deport migrants. On the contrary: 84% of Britons (including 77% of Leave voters) support the right of existing EU residents to remain in the UK indefinitely. However much British society is concerned by mass immigration, it remains basically tolerant of immigrants as human beings.

World War III still seems some way off

The rulers of the world threatened the voters of Britain with an end to peace if they voted the wrong way in the referendum. The British people voted to Leave the EU over a month ago, and we are still waiting for Germany to invade Poland again.

The EU is not the only barrier between us and World War III. Europe is not constantly one vote away from a return to 1939. It is 2016. Europe is very different now. We are wealthier, more interdependent, less nationalist, no longer tied to rival colonial empires, and all heavily dependent on US domination for our security, that war among European states is unthinkable.

The UK is preparing to Leave the EU without having to declare war on Europe. Theresa May is unlikely to get the best deal for Britain by reviving the Queen’s claim to the French throne and sending the army over on the Eurostar. Instead, Britain is doing what modern rich countries do with other modern rich countries – talking, arguing, negotiating and making deals.

It’s not the end of the world

There’s still an enormous amount to be done to make sure Brexit comes off well. But the referendum has shown to the people of Britain and the world that democratic political change does not have to lead to economic chaos, racism, Fascism and war.

The world has survived Britain’s referendum vote. Hopefully it can show, even to disappointed Remain voters, that we can vote to change the world, without it meaning the end of the world.

James Aber

Invoke Article 50 Now? Be Careful What You Wish For

30 Jul

This is a follow-up to our earlier post, where we argued that invoking Article 50 immediately, as some are demanding, is a mistake.

A majority of voters in the referendum issued a clear instruction: “leave the EU”. The problem, however, is that “leaving the EU” could mean anything from Little Englander isolationism to “Brexit in name only”, retaining EU regulation, budget contributions and freedom of movement without formal EU membership. There is no clarity on what “leave the EU” actually means because the referendum was a democratic moment, not a democratic movement. Just as Remainers offered no positive vision of the EU, so Leave campaigners failed to offer a compelling, detailed vision of a post-Brexit Britain, relying instead on fearmongering and dubious spending commitments. They have not emerged as a triumphant, coherent force leading Britain towards a clearly specified destination; instead, they promptly imploded.

This matters because, when Article 50 is invoked, someone must instruct Britain’s negotiators what to actually bargain for. This is how international negotiations work: political leaders instruct technocrats on the broad objectives and “red lines”, then leave them to work out the details. At present, the task of defining Britain’s objectives falls entirely to an unelected prime minister and a handful of Tory ministers.

If Article 50 were to be invoked tomorrow, as some demand, what would their instructions be? Given the lack of any coherent plan among Leavers, one possibility is that we blunder in with poorly defined or impossible objectives, emerging with an extremely poor deal. Otherwise, given the risk aversion and pro-EU sentiment of the British establishment, the default position is likely to be one that safeguards as much of the status quo as possible. It is also likely to be strongly influenced by powerful corporate interests like the financial sector. They understand that everything is potentially up for grabs and have already begun lobbying government to ensure their interests shape Britain’s negotiating strategy. The risk, then, is an outcome of “Brexit in name only” – which is not what a majority of Leave voters wanted.

Some nonetheless suggest that we could mobilise to influence this process once it has begun. This betrays ignorance of the Article 50 process and the realpolitik of international negotiations. Firstly, when Article 50 is invoked, a two-year clock starts ticking down: after that, Britain is out. Britain’s bargaining power will diminish with every day that passes, because of the necessity of reaching a deal before that deadline to avoid the economic chaos that would otherwise result. If the government radically changes its negotiating objectives mid-way through, that halves the time available, vastly reducing Britain’s leverage. Any government would strenuously avoid this, making massive popular mobilisation necessary to force its hand.

Secondly, unless tremendous popular pressure is brought to bear to change the negotiating format, which seems unlikely, the Brexit talks will be virtually impervious to popular control and accountability. Brexit minister David Davis will not sit around a table with his counterparts from the 27 other member-states, each representing their own publics – that is not how EU negotiations work. Instead, British technocrats – their instructions in hand – will negotiate with EU technocrats with their own instructions, in secret, with no democratic oversight. Davis could only be held to account and prevented from “fudging” the outcome if there existed a clearly defined set of objectives against which the public could judge him. Currently, no such objectives exist.

Thirdly, if Article 50 were invoked tomorrow, the EU negotiating team would likely be led by Eurocrats hostile to British interests. The EU itself is in some disarray following the vote, but a spiteful faction of committed federalists – led by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, EU parliamentarians like Guy Verhofstadt – is already demanding that Britain be “punished” to deter further defections. The Commission and the Council are currently struggling over who gets to lead the negotiations, with Juncker pre-emptorily appointing Michel Barnier as chief negotiator. But importantly, they are united in demanding that Article 50 be invoked without delay – because this empowers them. This faction wants to shore up the EU project, and it lives and dies by the EU rulebook – which states that Britain must first exit the EU, and only then may negotiate a new trade deal. If this faction dominates proceedings, Britain will find it much harder to get a good deal.

Conversely, by delaying Article 50, May buys time to court the leaders of member-states, many of whom are more pragmatic. They recognise their own economic interests are best served by pragmatism and parallel deals, not spite and strict rule adherence. Britain’s best hope for a good deal is that these political leaders are persuaded to instruct the EU negotiating team to follow these national interests, not their own priorities. Inter-state consultations also allow Britain to develop a more realistic approach and find ways to leverage divisions among member-states to its own advantage.

Delaying Article 50 categorically does not mean that citizens should simply get back in their box, and leave matters to the experts. On the contrary, it is essential to harness and expand the democratic moment. The sense of energy and potential generated by the referendum needs to be channelled into developing concrete demands for the Brexit negotiations and insisting that political leaders represent our interests. This is not a step back from a democratic demand, but a step forward to make more, and more concrete, demands.

This is difficult precisely because of what the EU has always represented and entrenched: the longstanding crisis of representative democracy. Ideally, political leaders would now engage the public in concrete discussions of what they want post-Brexit Britain to look like, through grassroots organisations, civic associations, mass meetings and so on. Ideally, parties would turn these demands into concrete platforms and allow the public to vote on them, with a general election determining who leads the Brexit talks and on what terms. This only seems unlikely because representative institutions have crumbled over the last three decades. Parties have detached from their social bases and retreated into the state. Political elites develop policy platforms not by consulting the people they supposedly represent, but through consulting one another, not least through the EU.

This decay is not something easily reversed – but it is essential to try. Citizens should be demanding that parties return to their basic function of representing social groups’ interests. They should also be using every social, political, civic and economic organisation at their disposal to make concrete demands of the government. Universities, hi-tech businesses and the City of London are already doing this – citizens must follow suit.

A good example of a concrete popular demand was the petition demanding that EU nationals in Britain would have their residency rights protected. Despite anti-immigration sentiment, according to opinion polls, 84% of the public back this position, and this has quickly forced the government to include this as a negotiating principle.

This process of organising, formulating demands and insisting that the government represent our interests cannot be avoided if the people are to have any influence over the Brexit negotiations. It would be necessary if Article 50 were invoked tomorrow, or next year, and there is no reason think it would be any easier under either scenario. A short delay in invoking it buys time for the uphill struggle of organising. It prevents the initiative passing immediately to the technocrats on either side, who would likely define objectives conservatively and operate with minimal popular oversight. The only way to hold the British government accountable for the outcome is for the public to do everything it can to shape the UK’s negotiating objectives, then hold their feet firmly to the fire.

This post is based on remarks by Lee Jones at the Invoke Democracy Now meeting in Brixton on 28 June.

Will the UK Actually Leave the EU?

30 Jul

A conspiratorial view is circulating among some Leavers, whereby UK prime minister Theresa May is deliberately delaying invoking Article 50 – perhaps indefinitely – in order to achieve her secret goal of never actually leaving the EU, or achieve some sort of ‘fudge’.

This cynicism is understandable. There was a huge anti-democratic backlash after the referendum. The EU and its member-governments have a habit of re-running referenda whose results they don’t like. The SNP wants to veto Brexit. Much of the Labour party would like a second referendum. There is legal action pending in the high court seeking to put the decision on invoking Article 50 into the hands of our predominantly pro-EU parliamentarians. And May herself, of course, was a Remainer.

But the idea that the government will never invoke Article 50 ignores a range of facts.

Theresa May says “Brexit means Brexit” because 60% of Tory voters opted for Brexit, against the will of their own party leader. The referendum was called partly to staunch the haemorrhaging of Tory voters to UKIP. Failing to invoke Article 50 would be electoral suicide. It was also called to manage Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers who, if betrayed now, could bring down May’s government, given its slim parliamentary majority. The idea that there is no pressure on May, that she can do as she pleases, is absurd.

The referendum outcome is also the only democratic mandate that May claims for her administration. The last time a prime minister took office without a general election – when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in 2007 – the Tories denounced it as undemocratic and demanded a general election. The only way the Tories can fend off these demands now is to appeal to the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.

The Scottish question is also unlikely to delay departure indefinitely. It is absurd to suggest that 1.66m Scottish Remainers should be able to override the UK’s 17.4m Leave voters. The SNP’s ultimate trump card is a second independence referendum. However, Scotland’s economic prospects outside of Britain – particularly one outside the EU – are even worse now than in 2014, and this question proved decisive then. The SNP has no interest in calling a vote they would probably lose. May is not bowing to SNP sabre-rattling – she is trying to find a way to appease Scottish voters and contain the UK’s constitutional crisis.

Nor is it likely that the eventual deal on Brexit would be put to a second referendum, enabling Brexit to be overturned. Once Article 50 is invoked, the UK will be on an irreversible two-year countdown to departure; to get back into the EU, the UK would have to reapply from scratch. Voting down the deal would not salvage Britain’s EU membership, it would only plunge the country into deeper uncertainty.

Finally, what lends this whole notion a truly conspiratorial air is the implication that all of May’s speeches, foreign trips, domestic appointments and institutional reordering are part of an expensive and elaborate charade to mask her true intentions.

The greater risk now is not that the government will not invoke Article 50 at some point. It is that it will define the objectives of the subsequent negotiations in a way that essentially maintains the status quo. The British establishment is overwhelmingly pro-EU and favours stability above all else. Powerful business interests are already lobbying the government to maintain as much of the existing framework as possible. If these groups are permitted to define the terms of the negotiations, the real risk is not never leaving the EU, but rather “Brexit in name only”, an EU-lite where vast areas of policymaking remain insulated from democratic control. If this happens, the opportunity of the current democratic moment will be squandered, with Leave voters becoming even more cynical about and disillusioned with democracy.

Lee Jones

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